Working With Body Image in Therapy.  

Part 1 – (My own journey through disordered eating.)

** This article is based on lived experience.

Growing up in the 80s I was only ever aware of 2 eating disorders: bulimia and anorexia nervosa. I naively thought that they were for girls who wanted to be supermodels. While I thought anyone who was size zero had gone a step too far, I related to what I presumed was a desire to look like all the images of “beautiful” that assaulted me on a daily basis.

Whilst my own disordered eating was only a secondary, if not tertiary concern while in therapy in the 2010s, these concerns are by far reason enough to seek out counselling in the 1st instance.

The Following Was My Experience.

At a very young age, I was surrounded by a very large extended family. At Easter I recall receiving the most delicious array of eggs from aunts, uncles, and grandparents alike. One year, when I was maybe 5 or 6, I recall these chocolatey delights saw me right through until September. Reflecting on this, I can see how amidst my parents’ divorce and a life that was suddenly turned upside down and thrown into chaos, sugar became my (lifelong) friend. A treat that gave me a boost, momentary pleasure, and something that I could control.

I’m from a generation of “You’re staying at the table until it’s gone,” “Get what you’re given, or go without” (although going without was never actually an acceptable option) and the ultimate classic of guilt-food-lines “There are children starving in Africa!” Mealtimes were truly beyond my control. But chocolate was not!

At comprehensive school (from age 11) I became aware of boys in a big way. And more than anything, I wanted one of my own.

Disney, family, society, and lots of media had by this point convinced me that I needed to be “sugar and spice and all things nice”. Nice including; slim, pretty & demure. When my parents split my father remarried a woman a decade younger, several dress sizes smaller and who was often far more “made-up” than I’d ever seen my mother. A mother who before having 3 children had been a tall, leggy, blue eyed blonde. Yet after children she was a larger, presumably more tired and much busier version of her former self.

Whilst I do not judge or blame anyone in this story, I use these examples to illustrate the very clear message this had on my very young psyche:- to get & keep a man you need to be young, skinny & basically a living version of the Barbie dolls I used to love dressing up.

At school my sister had gorgeous boyfriends, while I remained unwanted by anyone I had a crush on. My sister was consequently naturally thin. When this became “fashionable” in the 90s, she was oh-so popular (if only in my perception, I can’t be sure) while I felt like the younger, chubbier one in her shadow. Ridiculous now I look back at photos and see how slim I was.

Starting work in a sweet shop in my teens birthed a “genius” idea to become as thin as my sister, the women in Friends and the size zero models suddenly populating the media. I still recall the guilt, shame & feelings of failure I experienced after wolfing down boxes of fudge and the sickliest goodies I could get my hands on, and then not being able to make myself sick. Complete and utter failure. I was mortified and cried, wiping my tears with knuckles red with teeth marks.

But I was equally determined & miserable and was so incredibly proud the day I finally managed to be sick. I felt a sense of accomplishment that has been hard to match since. And I felt happy. Happy that there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Do this often enough and I’d soon be slim and have a boyfriend. Someone who cared. And then I wouldn’t be the chubby one any longer. A label only I had given myself.

And it worked.

I didn’t do it much, or often, but as fate would have it, I soon had several boyfriends (not at once I hasten to add), and my need for binging and purging disappeared. This became my pattern for many years. Being sad and also single led to binging and purging. But never to any great degree. The hatred that I took out on my body was an acceptable manifestation of the lack of self-worth that sat at the root of this behaviour.

Complex trauma at the age of 24 took this to a whole new level. At first, I stopped eating almost entirely. Consuming around only 80 calories a day. I was exercise obsessed in the privacy of my bedroom and as I was off sick from work, I didn’t notice how not fuelling my body was impacting me. For the 1st time this had nothing to do with how I looked.

But this wasn’t maintainable. After several weeks, a month maybe, I’d dropped to a mere 8 stone. 8 Stone!! The silver lining to my diagnosis of clinical depression. And how twisted a notion is this?! But then my food intake crept up, and I felt so guilty for that. I wanted to be as empty as I felt. I wanted nothing inside of me. 

My appetite only fully returned when I found myself in a relationship again. I felt wanted, loved and validated for the 1st time in a very long time. I believed he loved me as I was. And as my life no longer felt out of control, I eased up the control (punishment) over my body.

After 3 happy years together we split, and I found myself totally alone in a city I didn’t know.

Again, my need to make myself sick from here on in had nothing to do with looks, or body image. Not consciously at any rate. After 2 decades of doing it off & on, it was now a tried and tested coping mechanism. My mental health was at an all-time low, and I’d lost the will to even pretend to care what I looked like. Medication wasn’t helping, therapy was an abject failure & everything felt utterly pointless.

 The sweet satisfaction of ridding my body of what felt like toxicity, & a loathed part of myself when I would be sick, helped. A lot.

 After, I would feel a calm I couldn’t find any other place. There was also exhaustion from the effort, and crying and I would sleep soundly having flushed away some of the hideousness that I thought of as me.

The potentially disappointing part of this story is that I cannot pinpoint what changed and brough me out of this self-destructive pattern. But the following are things that undoubtedly played a part:

I found an amazing therapist whom I worked with for several years. There was nothing that we didn’t discuss.

I came out of my depression (largely due to therapy and my own writing) and weaned myself off medication, excessive drinking and cigarettes.

I moved the bar in my romantic relationships. It had plummeted over the years, & I finally thought “Enough! I don’t deserve this!”

I decided to leave the big city & moved back to my sometimes-sleepy seaside home town.

Synchronicity brought a couple of authors into my life & I submerged myself in spiritual literature – nurturing my soul, which had been neglected for years.

I saw my behaviour for the cruel punishment to my body that it had been. To a body that had never let me down. I finally felt it didn’t deserve the maltreatment I had been forcing upon it for years.

It’s been at least 10 years since I last made myself sick. I still don’t eat much when I’m experiencing trauma – but it’s not a conscious decision so much as the thought of food makes me feel physically sick when I’m excessively distressed. And I still turn to chocolate when I’m sad, anxious or experiencing so called “negative”emotions. I can see that this goes back to a pattern of controlling 1 thing when all else feels like it’s spiralling away from me. The need to control in itself being a trauma response.

I don not claim to be an expert on disordered eating. I have had only very minimal training alongside the experiences listed here. I have worked with several clients (male and female) whose own relationships with food  mirror elements of my own story.

If you would like to work with me on your eating patterns, I am happy to do so as much as my knowledge will allow. Please know that if we decide (or I feel) specialist help would benefit you more, I would aim to signpost you to someone else who can help.

And once again, no blame or animosity is held towards anyone written about here. I take full responsibility for my own life, behaviour & journey.  Their parts were referenced for context only.

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